CIO panel preps fed 'white pages'
- By Brian Robinson
- May 09, 1999
The CIO Council is planning to build an online government "white pages" directory, a first-of-its-kind service that would make it easy for government employees and the general public to find the names, e-mail addresses, telephone numbers and locations of all federal workers.
The directory also would set the stage for other government IT programs. In particular, officials said, it would help speed the deployment of a public-key infrastructure (PKI) because this security solution needs a place for people to find the digital certificates that authenticate someone's online identity.
The International Trade Commission (ITC), which is handling procurement for the project, hopes to have 80 percent of all relevant federal employee information available through the directory by the end of October. A request for quotations from vendors to develop the directory was issued April 16; quotes were to be returned by April 28.
This is an ambitious timetable, acknowledged Martin Smith, director of information services at ITC and co-chairman of the Directory Forum, a working group of the CIO Council's Interoperability Committee. But, given other issues that are demanding agencies' attention now, such as the Year 2000 date change, he felt this approach was needed "to try and force action," he said.
Building the directory will not be straightforward, he said. Even though information in the directory will be limited, some agencies may not have all the data compiled in one listing, and formats for how the information is arranged can differ by agency. Also, many agencies are concerned about privacy, security and the possibility of people sending e-mail spam messages.
And just building the interagency infrastructure needed to put the white pages together is unknown territory, Smith said. "This is to act as an enterprise service, but so far there are no central facilities for managing it," he said. "Just how do you administer it, how do you budget for it? We are breaking new ground here."
The white pages project also could break new ground by playing a role in agency PKIs. All users of a PKI must have a registered identity, stored in a digital public-key certificate issued by a trusted certification authority. In a PKI transaction, a user sending a message secures it with a private encryption key. The message's intended receiver then uses the certificate associated with the sender to retrieve the sender's "public" key in order to decrypt the message.
The white pages could help agencies set up PKIs by at least providing a governmentwide directory in which to store public keys, said William Burr, an electronics engineer at the National Institute of Science and Technology and chairman of the technical working group of the federal PKI Steering Committee.
"A PKI probably demands more than the white pages alone," he said. "In addition to certifications for people, you also need certification authentication, revocation lists and so on. And there will be agencies that will not be comfortable with putting all of their personnel roster in a public directory." However, he said, the white pages directory would certainly make a PKI easier to deploy.
"No one has done something like PKI before, so getting a directory infrastructure going through a white pages would be at least a start," he said.
However, some observers question the extent to which agencies are willing to publish all their information online, particularly because of the security and privacy concerns. For example, Jenny Gruber, chief of directory services staff at the Internal Revenue Service, admitted that there is a need for a governmentwide directory, "but I don't think [the IRS] will be joining the white pages any time soon."We are in the process of putting our own internal directory together, and we are getting closer to a green light on that," she said. "But we have to work through certain issues with our security staff. They may want to exclude certain people from the directory."
Then there is the problem of getting the human resources staff to buy into the concept of an online directory and commit to keep the information up-to-date. Getting and keeping staff that knows how to run a database based on the X.500 directory standard has been a big problem, she said.
"If the Directory Forum can identify those agencies that are willing to be a part of the white pages, then it should be possible to get 80 percent of those onto it by October," Gruber said. "But for the IRS and other agencies that are cautious about this, it will depend on technology becoming available to safeguard information they don't want to be distributed to the public, and I'm not aware of that technology being available now."
Smith said he knows he and other advocates of a white pages are in for a long haul, but is confident of succeeding eventually if they can get the project going.
"We are pretty sure we can get the white pages built, but what happens in Year Two is the big question," he said. "If it proves to be popular and useful, as we think it will, then there will be more of an impetus [for] carrying it forward. It just seems apparent to me that this will be a very useful facility."
-- Robinson is a free-lance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.